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Cats, Dogs, Deer and Salt: The Story of Place Names in Taiwan, Part 2

As in north Taiwan, several places in south Taiwan bear names that are derived from the languages of the island’s Austronesian indigenous people. It used to be said that the ancient port town of Lukang (‘Deer Harbour’, image at the top of this blog post) got its name from the herds of sika deer that used to inhabit the nearby lowlands. Now, however, scholars think the name is a Han rendering of the original toponym, Rokau-an.

Like Lukang, Beigang is these days a backwater (the picture upper left was taken at its most famous temple). A couple of centuries ago it was a significant trading centre. Its current name came about because it was originally known to indigenous people as Ponkan. When Han people arrived, they wrote down this name using characters which are pronounced Bengang in Mandarin, but which mean ‘stupid harbor’. After the Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1895, they thought this was most unsuitable. Accordingly, they ordered that the character for ‘stupid’ be replaced with the one for ‘north’.

Many other towns and districts were renamed during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule. Kaohsiung was called Takau (often spelled Takao and occasionally Dagou) until the authorities decided in 1920 that the written form – the two Chinese characters mean ‘Beat the Dog’ – was unworthy of a rapidly-developing centre of industry and shipping. They replaced it with different characters meaning ‘Lofty Hero’ in both Chinese and Japanese and pronounced Takao in Japanese. Since 1945, the Mandarin pronunciation Gaoxiong has become standard. However, Takow has made something of a comeback in recent years due to the popularity of the city’s Former British Consulate.

Minxiong, a minor town in Chiayi County, was originally called Damao (‘Hit the Cat’). The place name was first recorded by the Dutch East India Company in 1643 when they began taxing the settlement’s inhabitants. A few place names reflect religious traditions. At least seven mountains and hills in Taiwan are named Guanyinshan (‘Guanyin Mountain’) to honour the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.

In the Taiwan of yore, salt was a valuable commodity. Produced by evaporating seawater in ponds along the coast, it was moved inland on ox carts and bartered for local produce. Yanpu (‘Salt Entrepot’), a little town in Pingtung, was so named by the Han pioneers who bought land there from indigenous people and paid with salt. A busy neighborhood in Greater Tainan is called Yanhang (‘Salt Business’).

Namasia District (pictured lower right) in Greater Kaohsiung was for decades known as Sanmin Township after the Three Principles of the People, a political ideology created by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of Nationalist China. The district’s current name is drawn from the Bunun and Tsou aboriginal languages. (Between them, these two tribes account for more than three quarters of the population). In the former, it means ‘better and better’, while in the latter it is the name of the area’s main river.

To arrange your visit to any of the places mentioned in this article, or destinations elsewhere in Taiwan, contact Life of Taiwan today.